Al Wasl Plaza – The client’s brief sought a destination that embodied the Expo theme, “Connecting Minds, Creating the Future.” Al Wasl was the heart of Expo2020 and is the city’s newest icon in the post-expo legacy district, Expo City Dubai. The vision transforms the role of public urban space through an integration of nature and technology. The resulting intricate domed trellis shades the terraced public garden space and, after dusk, becomes the world’s largest 360-degree projection immersive experience. Its design is adaptable for a range of activities from an individual’s reflective experience to small-scale lectures, artistic performances, and large-scale theatrical and musical productions.
Architizer chatted with Gordon Gill, FAIA, OAA and Co-Founder at Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture, to learn more about this project.
Architizer: What inspired the initial concept for your design?
Gordon Gill: The concept was inspired by conversations about the Expo District and the future of publicly accessible urban spaces. The goal was to create an engaging public space to anchor the exposition, be a recognizable Expo symbol, and be adaptable for the post-exposition legacy, Expo City Dubai. These needs demanded an architecture that references cultural public spaces, local patterns of architecture and light, and advances a spatial typology where nature and technology integrate to enhance 21st-Century life. The goal was to design a space that is local and global, flexible, intellectually accessible to all ages, energetic, contemplative, and highly sustainable. The trellis’s expression is based on a 4000-year-old Bronze Age ring that was recently discovered in the Emirates, linking the Expo with the history of Dubai, and was refined with the client team to articulate the design language.
What do you believe is the most unique or ‘standout’ component of the project?
The most unique attribute of Al Wasl is its ability to transform the individual experience to become a part of a larger experience and a larger conversation. Al Wasl Plaza maximizes this impact by extending its use beyond that of a garden and public space during daylight hours to become a cultural and educational platform of experiences throughout the evenings. The same fabric whose day function provides shade, after dusk becomes an animated surface for a 360-degree immersive projection experience. Curated digital content transports visitors through time and space with education, inspiration, joy, and wonder.
What was the greatest design challenge you faced during the project, and how did you navigate it?
There were many design challenges. Probably one of the greatest was the desire to capture the democracy of the space; to be understandable and experientially accessible for people of all ages, genders, and ethnicities. I like to say that Al Wasl is an intricate piece of architecture with a complicated solution, presented in a simple and elegant way. It also needed to transition from nature, (garden during the day) to technology (show at night) and to maintain its power as a usable site and post-expo feature. Its role needed to be fully adaptable to remain relevant over time.
How did the context of your project — environmental, social or cultural — influence your design?
Both the physical and environmental context were paramount to the design. The project is the heart of the district, so it needed to be functional for everyone. It defines the district as a pedestrian friendly, universally accessible space. The sunken garden is shaded by the trellis to embrace and protect its users. This “urban room,” operates at an intimate scale but also serves the larger community for gatherings and events. It can be both personally reflective and collectively unifying. We also wanted the space to speak to a history and to its future through its symbolism, nature, and technology. It educates and entertains; it is silent at times and energetic at other times, it is powerful yet humble and it is intellectually accessible to all cultures and ages. It strives to be genuinely sustainable – culturally, politically, and through a rigorous platform of analysis.
What drove the selection of materials used in the project?
Sustainability and performance. We used materials with high recycled contents and replaced cement with sustainable alternatives, reducing the construction C02 emitted by 32%. That’s equal to 21,760 barrels of oil or 37.1 million km driven by the average car in the UAE. Adaptability drove the selection of the trellis fabric. It needed to admit sunlight to the garden while allowing air movement and filtration to avoid stagnation and discomfort, and to be semi-permeable and breathable. In the desert, dust accumulation needs to be minimized, so if the material is impervious, infrequent but torrential rainfall collects on the surface, requiring a channeling drainage system. We selected a porous material that allows light, air, and water to pass through, while still providing shade and the appropriate resolution for projection imagery at night for the 360-degree immersive experience.
What is your favorite detail in the project and why?
My favorite detail is the extensive light play. Sunlight throughout the day and stunning content illumination at night are engaging. During the day, the shadows are not immediately noticeable as most visitors look into the space and upward at the physical trellis. However, the experience becomes complete when looking at the pattern of light on the plaza’s surface. As the sunlight moves across the space the range of details becomes evident on the trellis, the ground, on people, on adjacent buildings. It casts patterns of geometry of different scales and qualities of light from direct sunlight, light through the fabric, and solid shadows from the curved steel frame. These patterns alone can be beautiful. At night the light projected on the steel and the fabric is content that can be anything the mind can imagine.
How important was sustainability as a design criteria as you worked on this project?
Sustainability was paramount to the project. We developed a rigorous sustainable vision including embodied carbon reduction, solar energy generation, universal accessibility, and increased user comfort. Water use, grey water reuse, and plant species were selected for their sustainable properties. Through shade, strategic wind management, lowering the garden to create a micro-climate, low emissivity paving, water features, and landscaping the trellis cools the garden 12-degrees-Celsius below the surrounding uncovered spaces. 50% of the species in the garden are native and 100% of the plants were grown locally in Dubai nurseries. The species within the garden facilitate habitat creation for birds, butterflies, and bees. The entire project, which includes the dome and the five buildings surrounding the plaza, has achieved a CEEQUAL EXCELLENT rating.
In what ways did you collaborate with others, and how did that add value to the project?
We joined with leaders in fields from audiovisual to structural engineering, fluid dynamics to pedestrian and vehicular analysis, immersive experience to wind engineering and landscape. The design team worked with the SWA, the landscape designer, to incorporate native species, contextual bold paving patterns, and intricate water features that define the intimate spaces. One of the most valuable and technologically innovative aspects of the project, as its adaptability extends the use of the project, was our collaboration with Christie to design 42 projection pods to house 252 projectors. The custom pods were developed to install, protect, and run the D4K40-RGB laser projectors. Given Dubai’s harsh atmospheric conditions, including high temperatures, humidity, and fine air particles, the projectors were installed in a hermetically enclosed and cooled environment.
How have your clients responded to the finished project?
Al Wasl Plaza experienced tremendous success during the Expo. It hosted the opening and closing ceremonies and, every day, provided unforgettable experiences to millions of people from around the world. Today, we continue to learn of its potential as a canvas for creative minds and convening conversation. It is the next generation of public space and continues to be a wonder for all to engage. It is now, and I hope will always be, the centerpiece of Expo City Dubai.
What key lesson did you learn in the process of conceiving the project?
Al Wasl, and other recent projects, teach us that global collaboration elevates local industry expertise, increases a project’s exposure, streamlines the process from a knowledge and local approvals standpoint, and boosts the regional economy. The global intellectual investment in Al Wasl impacted the local architecture, engineering, and construction industries in Dubai. Local engagement in fabrication, labor, project management, document control, and authority approvals root the project delivery in the UAE culture and elevate the associated industries to the world stage. Building an icon with local involvement increases pride and appreciation for the building, especially for a public space. The impact of the global knowledge share, as well as the energy and inspiration infused by a large technological endeavor, has raised the standard for this typology locally and globally.
How do you imagine this project influencing your work in the future?
This project stands as a testament to the full integration of our sustainable platforms within an iconic statement defined by space and form. We have always approached the work as a fully integrated process of form and performance, and we continue to strive toward these goals for all of our projects. Al Wasl also reinforces our approach of working with local involvement to share knowledge and create a legacy around sustainable growth. We hope that this increases pride and appreciation for quality. The impact of the global knowledge share, as well as the energy and inspiration rooted in nature and infused by technological innovation, we hope, has raised a standard for this new typology and will continue to influence our thinking and process of design.
The client was Expo2020 Dubai, LLC; the Design Architect was Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture; the Architect of Record was e.construct LLC and The Fraser Nag Partnership; the General Contractor was RIMOND; the Structural Engineer was Thornton Tomasetti; MicroClimate was handled by Klimaat; the Civil Engineer was Langan International; the Landscape Architect was SWA Group; the Immersive Experience was created by Obscura; the Lighting consultant was OVI; Water Features were by Crystal Fountains; Cost Consulting was done by RLB; Wind Studies were conducted by RWDI; the MEP Engineer was Hoare Lea; Façade Access by Altitude; Fire Life Safety by Jensen Hughes Associates; Crowd Modeling was done by MIC; Wayfinding was done by Forcade; Security and ICT was handled through Mediatech; and Waste Management was by Tricon.
Products / Materials
The Steel Manufacturer was Cimolai; the Projection Pod Manufacturer was Kinetica; the AV Integrator was Creative Technology; the Projector Manufacturer was Christie; and the Fabric Mesh Manufacture was Taiyo.
For more on Al Wasl Plaza, please visit the in-depth project page on Architizer.